Published Online: July 20, 2010

Do We Need Another Hero?

You’ve seen them: the education movies about a driven principal who goes to a school to shake things up. Some teachers and parents are portrayed as resistant, but thanks to his charisma and force, the principal endures and makes changes. People eventually buy into the new culture and test scores improve.

If the movie was anything like Lean on Me with Morgan Freeman, the test results would be announced in some dramatic fashion in front of a large, energetic, and supportive crowd of students with the small group of detractors watching quietly from the sidelines. When it’s learned that the test scores have shot through the roof, just about everyone cheers, and it’s a happy ending as the music plays and credits roll.

Unfortunately, real life is never as conclusive. There's always another side to the story—although sometimes it has less immediate appeal.

On July 6, The Washington Post published two interesting articles about education reform. The front page piece, originally published under the headline “Sousa’s Middle March of Progress,” portrayed Principal Dwan Jordon’s “hands-on, data driven tack (as) transforming a D.C. school but also ruffling feathers.” Another piece in the editorial section highlighted the significant role played by Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, in the D.C. mayoral race. The piece argued that the upcoming election could be about her “100 miles an hour, the children can’t wait” approach to school reform, characterized by “school closings, teacher layoffs, spending decisions, and principal reassignments,” versus the approach of a mayoral opponent who favors a more cautious and sensitive strategy that emphasizes “community collaboration and buy in.”

Ultimately, we learn, the mayoral race will be about opponents with a “different sense of urgency in reform.” This ongoing story unfolds, according to this editorial, in the context of a city with a long history of troubles with officials who lack the political will to implement and sustain school improvements. Contrast that with the Time magazine cover in December 2008 that featured Rhee with a big broom, ready to sweep the D.C. schools clean—and her quote featured in the Waiting for Superman trailer: “You wake up every morning and you know that kids are getting a really crappy education right now.”

Leading Change

In a movie like Lean on Me, the audience hopes for the principal to be successful. Morgan Freeman just has that voice and aura that’s too powerful to resist (even if he is condescending and rude to the educators in the film). From the point of view of most people in the audience, the improvements in student achievement validate the “reform can’t wait” urgency and negate any ill effects caused by the ruffling of teacher feathers.

The Post story about Sousa Middle School echoes movies like Lean on Me. The article describes how Principal Jordon fired many of his staff, micromanaged classroom teaching, handpicked teacher replacements, and emphasized the rigid use of test data for instructional planning. Like in the movie, test scores rose. Unlike the movie, the story isn’t over.

Critics of Jordon’s leadership style continue to highlight the high turnover of teachers and a feeling of “humiliation” the reporter describes this way:

If students are improving at Sousa, teachers from Jordon's first year—almost none of whom kept their jobs this year—seem almost traumatized. One teacher accustomed to getting good evaluations said she felt "humiliated" by Jordon's constant scrutiny. Others said they'd come in at 5 a.m., trying to meet his demands, but still left school in tears.

Critics of Jordan's approach would argue that lasting change only results from consensus building and the development of organizational capacity. They could cite school leadership experts like Michael Fullan and describe the importance of relationships, knowledge building within an organization, and establishment of a learning culture. As Fullan argues in his book Leading in a Culture of Change:

Charismatic leaders inadvertently often do more harm than good because, at best, they provide episodic improvement followed by frustrated or despondent dependency. Superhuman leaders also do us another disservice: They are role models who can never be emulated by large numbers. Deep and sustained reform depends on many of us, not just on the very few who are destined to be extraordinary.

Critics of Jordan's style would also emphasize the importance of treating teachers as professionals whose expertise and energies would be required for steady and sustained improvement in all areas of learning, not just what’s measured on the tests. Recently, Post education writer Jay Mathews, in a column titled “Hero or Bully?,” commented on Mr. Jordon’s assertive tactics, noting that “his second year scores, soon to be released, better be good, or any powerful enemies he makes will have more than enough witnesses for their case against him.”

There are other interesting factors that could be discussed in connection with the Sousa Middle School's recent success—specifically, the school’s new renovation and very low student-to-teacher ratio (56 adults for 230 students). What if the renovation and additional resources had been carried out in concert with a consensus building approach? What if the previous faculty had received more professional development and guidance? Would these school-strengthening efforts be enough to produce results similar to those being hailed by the “reform can’t wait” proponents? More importantly, would the change last?

There are other unknowns. What if Mr. Jordon gets promoted and leaves Sousa? Will the success go with him, or, will the improvements endure since he largely handpicked staff who share his philosophy?

Powerful Stories and Numbers

Whatever might have been done or might happen in the future, one thing is certain, and it’s something educators need to understand in the public debate. The “reform can’t wait” movement has powerful stories involving emotional charismatic leaders who save kids. They have the “hard numbers” that test data provide to justify their bold actions. It’s a simple, direct, convincing story that is compelling and easy to understand and doesn’t require supporters to have any knowledge of education pedagogy, statistics, leadership philosophy, or policy. Results are more immediate, and don’t require years of building consensus while resistant or “burned out teachers” decide if they want to get on board. And the cultural references—like Morgan Freeman’s charisma, documentaries about charters, or Michelle Rhee’s magazine cover stare-down—are easily at hand.

From the public’s perspective, for better or worse, the expectation for story-telling has been set. Educators and policymakers who argue for the slower consensus-building approach will need equally convincing stories to sway the public. They will need to publicize or create movies of real examples of schools where change occurred internally, within a school, with the same staff, demonstrating that test scores increased and the improvement lasted. Some compelling examples like this would advance the discussions on how to improve schools.

Without this alternate storytelling, the public may not find teacher accounts of feeling humiliated or unprofessionally treated very compelling. That’s unfortunate, because lost along these hardened battle lines are hard working and dedicated educators who strive daily to make a difference. But in the public debate, they get lumped together with the resistant, burnt out, or ineffective teachers.

So does the public portrayal of urgency for school reform trump teachers’ defense of professionalism? Maybe the answer depends on which character you identify with in the movie.

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